Don Cook was a young Marine Corps Captain, stationed on Okinawa but on a 90-day temporary duty assignment in South Vietnam when he was captured by the Viet Cong near the town of Binh Gia. From his capture on December 31, 1964, to his death on or about December 8, 1967, Cook was held in a number of primitive prisoner of war (POW) camps in South Vietnam. He and his fellow POWs, mostly Army officers and enlisted soldiers and one US government civilian suffered mental, emotional, and some physical abuse, near-starvation diets, minimal medical care despite the ravages of many tropical diseases, and exposure to the elements.
Through it all, Cook held himself to the highest standards of moral, professional, and personal conduct, often placing the health and welfare of his fellow POWs ahead of his own. He finally succumbed to malaria during an arduous trek between camps. Based on the testimony of his fellow POWs, who either escaped, were released during the war, or were repatriated at the end of the US involvement in Vietnam, Cook was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Later, a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Donald G. Cook, DDG-75, was named for him.
Author Donald L. Price, himself a retired Marine Colonel, used extensive interviews with family members, friends, Cook’s fellow POWs, senior military leaders, plus thorough research to put together this story of faith, courage, sacrifice, and almost unbreakable will to live. Readers will have no doubt that Cook fully earned the Medal.
While in many ways a well-told and gripping story, there is one thing I wish Price had done differently and two things I could have done with a lot less of. It would have been helpful to have more maps of South Vietnam. While those who served there would likely know the locations, or at least the general areas without having to refer to a map, those of us who came after need maps to place the events and story line in proper context. The one such map is buried in the middle of the book, rather than being placed at the beginning or end where it would have been easier to find and refer to.
Price also spends, to this reader’s mind, far too much time extolling the virtues of Cook’s Catholic upbringing and schooling, and on almost lecturing the reader on how an aspect of Cook’s behavior exemplified some aspect of the Code of Conduct or of one of the Corps’ leadership principles. Writers are taught to “show, don’t tell,” but Price occasionally interrupts the narrative to tell the reader what was already evident. His sometimes gushing, almost fawning praise for Captain Cook made it seem that the author felt Cook’s actions alone weren’t enough for the reader to understand the magnitude of what he was doing. There were times when this was so heavy-handed I seriously considered a much lower rating for the entire book.
In the end, though, it’s not the author’s story-telling style and practices that carry the day, but Cook’s selfless and courageous, “above and beyond the call of duty” behavior that earned the book’s 4-star rating. I highly recommend this book for all Vietnam veterans, especially Marines, and for military members of all Services interested in the history of that war or of examples of leadership in extremis. I also recommend it for civilians who have no experience with or understanding of what military personnel face, especially should the find themselves in situations like Cook’s and his fellow prisoners’. For this readership, this biography will be a real eye-opener.